It’s been a while since I last shared a complete dinner menu. It’s been a while since we last indulged in one of my favorite cuisines – Italian. This one-skillet Pasta dish has been on the weekly menu for a while now, but you know how plans go – by the wayside. Especially during the holidays – last-minute shopping, errands and other distractions. Finally, at long last the timing was right. The Ziti Bake was a new recipe and I was eager to give it a try.
The salad was made, chilling nicely in the refrigerator. Up until the moment when the salad became a reality, the recipe did not exist. I love those kinds of dishes, don’t you? We had tomatoes, cucumbers and shallots on hand. I remembered how much I loved Dad’s Cucumber and Red Onion salads in the summer. Slices of cucumbers and red onion rings marinating in a mixture of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Yum. Why not add some sliced tomatoes to the mix? And why not replace the red onion with a sweet, mild shallot? Dad’s dressing was simply, straight forward. Just a sprinkling of red wine vinegar and a few twists from the pepper mill was all there was to it. I wanted to elevate that simple concept just a wee-bit – a little oil, a little garlic and just a pinch of fresh-ground salt. The dressing was good, but it lacked a little kick. Peering into the refrigerator for something – anything to bring a little zing to the salad, I spotted a jar of Dijon Mustard. Just what the doctor ordered. A smidgen of mustard was all it took to bring the dressing to a new dimension. One taste and I knew I had it right.
On to the bread. The oven was warming, the bread buttered and ready to pop into the oven at the right moment. Everything was right on track, coming along smoothly. I was one happy camper.
Next up, the Ziti bake. The skillet was on the stove, the sausage all crumbled and browned. It was just a matter of adding the various tomatoes, water and pasta to the pan. Cover and let it all cook up nicely while I mixed two bowls of cheese – the first to blend into the pasta, the second to sprinkle on top. That’s when it happened – the horror of realizing a crucial ingredient was missing. Blended Italian Cheeses – a cup of Blended Italian Cheeses. Now mind you, I have an entire drawer in the refrigerator dedicated to cheeses. Sliced cheese, blocks of cheese, bags of shredded, grated and shaved cheeses. Tubs of feta. How is it that I had no Italian blend? Hubby offered to run to the store, but that wasn’t practical at this stage of the preparation. No need to fear, I’d simply make my own blend of cheeses. That’s when the second realization struck – NO Romano or Mozzarella cheeses. Again, how was that possible? Somehow I had not added the cheeses to my shopping list. Do not panic, I told myself. I could use Monterey Jack to replace the Mozzarella. It would melt nicely and impart a creamy goodness. And I had Parmesan – that was a plus. But what could replace the Romano? It needed to melt nicely, to be a bit strong and distinct. I had considered Feta. And then I remembered picking up a block of Goat’s Milk White Cheddar Cheese. Why not? It would be different. Oh my, sometimes winging it gives rise to some of the most scrumptious combinations. The Goat’s Milk White Cheddar was just what the blend needed – full flavored and delicious. (Before mixing it all together as my top layer of cheese, I made a little ball of Jack, White Cheddar and Parmesan, then popped it into my mouth. Delicious!)
Cucumber, Tomato and Shallot Salad
5 medium tomatoes, cut into slices
1 large cucumber, sliced
2 Shallots, sliced thin
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 Olive Oil
2 Garlic Cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Salt
1 teaspoon Fresh Cracked Pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
Slice tomatoes and cucumbers. Arrange on a rimmed serving platter, alternating tomatoes and cucumbers.
Peel and thinly slice shallots. Break shallots into tiny rings and sprinkle over cucumbers and tomatoes.
In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper until well incorporated. Add mustard and whisk again until blended. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Pour dressing over salad, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
One-Skillet Ziti Bake
1 lb Mild Italian sausage, bulk
1 (14.5-oz) can fire roasted diced tomatoes with garlic
1 (8-oz) can tomato sauce
½ (6-oz) can tomato paste
1 Tbsp dried Italian seasoning
16 oz whole milk ricotta cheese
1 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese, divided
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 lb dried Ziti pasta
3 cups water
1/4 Cup Goat’s Milk White Cheddar Cheese, Grated
1/2 Cup Monterey Jack Cheese, shredded
In a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat, brown sausage, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, sauce, paste, Italian seasoning, dried pasta, and water. Stir to combine, cover and bring to a boil. Boil until pasta is al dente, about 15 minutes, stirring about mid-way through cooking time to prevent scorching.
Meanwhile; combine ricotta, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper in a bowl. Stir until well incorporated and smooth. When pasta is cooked and most of the water is gone, stir ricotta mixture into the pasta. Cover and remove from heat.
Preheat oven to broil.
In a small bowl, blend remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, Monterey Jack and White Cheddar cheese.. Top skillet with shredded cheese mixture and place in oven. Broil until cheese is bubbly and nicely melted over Ziti. Watch carefully as cheese will crisp and begin to burn quickly.
Warm French Bread with Garlic Butter
1 Loaf French Bread
4 Tablespoons Butter, melted
2 Garlic Cloves, pressed
2 Teaspoons Italian Breadcrumbs
In a micro-wave safe bowl, warm butter in 10-second increments until melted. Press garlic into butter. Add breadcrumbs and whip to blend.
Preheat oven to 400-degrees. While the oven warms, slice bread length-wise until almost cut through, leaving a little “hinge” to keep the halves connected. Close bread, turn so that sliced side is up, hinged side down. Cut into nice, thick slices without cutting all the way through. This will keep loaf together so that bread is “broken” apart when served.
Place on a baking sheet, open and brush each slice generously with melted butter. Place in the oven open-face and bake until warm, about 10 minutes. The breadcrumbs in the butter with give the tops a nice “crunch”.
Remove from oven, close loaf and wrap in foil to keep warm until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, place loaf in a long bread basket and pass around the table, the breaking bread together as a group to share and enjoy.